Digger Phelps was listing as he paced painfully around his office last week, transformed by a bad back and a deformed record into a latter-day hunchback of Notre Dame. The normally effervescent Phelps looked glum as he ticked off the names of the recruits who had gotten away, players who could have made him and the Irish stand tall.
Lean times come to the Notre Dame athletic department. First the football team suffered through a 5-6 season. Now the basketball team, which had qualified for the NCAA tournament 11 of the past 13 years, is foundering. At week's end, the Irish were 2-6, their wins coming against St. Joseph's and Valparaiso, a pair of small schools in Indiana. Before Christmas they lost consecutive home games to Murray State, 56-54, and Northern Illinois, 70-65. Or was it Murray Illinois and Northern State? The Golden Dome isn't peeling, but it sure is tarnished.
To understand how a school that has had so much success could suddenly find itself in such dire straits one must realize that college coaches are primarily recruiters. After all, you have to dance with whom you brung. And of late, only one blue-chip high school player, Guard John Paxson, has come waltzing Notre Dame's way. "It's like trying to cut a wheat field with a lawn mower," says Forrest Miller, a sportswriter for the South Bend Tribune.
Just how bad is the situation in South Bend? First, Center Tim Andree has been plagued all year by a stress fracture in his left foot, which he packs in ice every evening. Andree holds the dubious distinction of having committed five fouls in 15 minutes against Murray State. His backup is Cecil Rucker, a forward. It gets worse. Only three players stand taller than 6'7", including senior Gary Grassey, one of two emergency walk-ons Phelps culled from what the Notre Dame basketball press guide calls the school's "rough and tumble" intramural league.
Overall, the Irish are two or three players from having the lineup needed for the 20-victory record that Phelps bravely—brazenly?—predicted for them before the season began. Lacking those players—a healthy center, a big forward and help for Paxson in the backcourt—Phelps has resorted to even more gimmickry than usual, trying everything from slowdowns to slogans and inspirational songs to motivational speeches.
Phelps, who began the season with a 10-year record of 206-84 at Notre Dame, also has put in a call for the cavalry, but it won't arrive until next year, when four highly touted high school stars are expected to enroll. He has never picked recruits so early, and his doing so now is perhaps a sign that he has written off this season as irretrievable. Lately Phelps has been spending a lot of time studying the results of other teams' games and figuring out that the Irish play 11 games against teams currently ranked in the SI Top 20.
The immediate cause of Notre Dame's fall from grace is the loss of seven letter-men from the 1980-81 club that defeated San Francisco, Kentucky, Virginia and eventual NCAA champion Indiana. This formidable aggregation went 23-5 before losing by one point to BYU in the East Regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament. Three of the graduated players, Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Wool-ridge and Tracy Jackson, now are performing in the NBA and occasionally calling Phelps to offer condolences.
As if that trio's departure wasn't enough, Notre Dame was further hurt by the defection of 6'11" Joe Kleine, who averaged 31.3 points as a high school senior in Slater, Mo. but only 2.6 points as a Notre Dame freshman last season. Unhappy with his limited role in the Irish offense, Kleine transferred to Arkansas.
But well before Kleine packed his bags, Phelps knew he was in for some hard times, because he had never lost three starters in one swoop. Even when such stars as Adrian Dantley or Toby Knight moved on, Phelps always had replacements groomed. This time, however, Phelps opened the lockers for preseason practice and no new All-Americas fell out. "We took some chances in recruiting the last few years," he says, "and we lost."
Specifically, while Phelps was wooing a most select group of high school prospects the past few years, he passed up opportunities to sign other players of only slightly less stature. Several of those blue-chippers whom Phelps sought, including Steve Stipanovich of Missouri, Darren Daye of UCLA, Jim Master of Kentucky and Greg Dreiling of Wichita State, had Notre Dame on their lists to the end, but all decided to go elsewhere.
Not surprisingly, considering the season Notre Dame is having, Phelps has been getting calls from disgruntled players at other schools who see a niche for themselves in South Bend. He has even gotten inquiries from three players on a nationally ranked team about transferring. But as hard up as he is, Phelps can't oblige. "We don't accept transfers, we don't redshirt people and we don't take junior-college kids," he says.
This explanation doesn't wash with the angry letter writers and disgruntled souls who have been waiting years to jump on Phelps's back. His glad-handing and glib manner never have sat well with many Notre Dame supporters. The grumblers contend that Phelps has become more concerned with style than substance, that he is enamored of such outside interests as doing television shows, coaching clinics and giving seminars and speeches rather than of the nuts and bolts of recruiting. Why, they carp, his office doesn't even have any basketball memorabilia on display. "It does look like a gallery," says Phelps, surveying his artwork, which includes a couple of Van Gogh prints.
Most coaches in the throes of such an abysmal year might keep a moving van parked in the driveway, but Phelps has no worries about job security. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame, sent him a Christmas note pledging support, and in a speech at the school's football banquet last month, Hesburgh said, "It [athletics] is a game, no more, no less."
Last week, while Phelps wrestled with the prospect of facing four Top 10 teams in the next five games, Gerry Faust, the Irish football coach, popped into Phelps's office. "The other night I was in the stands and a guy was really getting on you," Faust told Phelps. "He kept yelling, 'Coach 'em during the week, too, Digger.' Finally I said to him, 'Boy, I bet you really got on me during football.' He looked at me a second. 'Yeah, I did,' he said."
Both Faust and Phelps are well aware that not since 1963-64 has Notre Dame had losing basketball and football teams in the same year. The cynical might point out that the Irish had different basketball and football coaches the following season, but that's misleading because Hugh Devore, the football coach in '63, had been hired on an interim basis.
As the Notre Dame losses have mounted, Phelps has restructured his priorities. "Not that I didn't work hard before," he says, "but now I'm more determined than ever to win a national championship before I leave. I really want to coach. Forget television, forget the pros. Something like this year makes you realize that."
Meanwhile, he's doing all that he can to salvage this season—if not its record, then at least its spirit, which is decidedly hangdog. Phelps passes out T shirts that read THE RAT PACK IS BACK, the name of a band of smooth operators in the movie Ocean's 11, and Forward Tom Sluby's tape player usually is blaring the team's theme song, Don't Stop Believing. But without Kleine and with Andree hobbled, the 6'4" Sluby and 6'6" Bill Varner, the other starting forward, aren't large enough for big-time rebounding these days. In a 75-49 loss to UCLA, for instance, the Irish were outrebounded by better than a 2-1 ratio.
On Dec. 29 against Kentucky in Louisville's Freedom Hall, Phelps sought to upset the mammoth Wildcats with another wrinkle: the walkman offense. During one tedious second-half possession, Notre Dame made 213 passes while Phelps crouched on the sidelines shouting, "I love it! I love it!"
His delay tactics nearly worked. The Irish held Kentucky to just five points in the second half, none in the final 9:45 of regulation play, and only 76% field-goal shooting enabled the Wildcats to salvage a 34-28 overtime victory.
Later that night, at a team dinner, Phelps announced, "We're a different team now, and we will beat Missouri Saturday in Kansas City." But against the Tigers it was the same old story: no rebounding, no bench, no win. Missouri quickly forced Notre Dame out of its ball-control tactics with a pressing man-to-man defense and then played keep-away inside as the Irish lost 92-70. Clearly, another comment Phelps made last week was a more accurate assessment of Notre Dame's prospects. "It looks as if I'm going to keep a lot of coaches in their jobs this year."